Review: The Brief History of the Dead

brief-history-of-the-dead_covera.k.a. Book 1 of the 20 Books of Summer 2015 reading challenge. And we’re off to a less than excellent start… Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead is not the introspective, suspenseful powerhouse it sounds from the back cover:

The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this city until completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out.

This premise, rather than being the foundation of a story, is the story. The narrative doesn’t advance beyond this trim summation until the final chapters, at which point it’s too little too late. The plot is too one-note to adequately fill 252 pages. (I don’t usually quibble over page count, but I have 19 books to go, so I am.) In a way, it’s a spoiler to give you the back of the book, but don’t worry—it’s all here on page 7 too:

More and more people came to adopt the theory that [the city] was an extension of life itself—a sort of outer room—and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. When the last person who had actually known them had died, they would pass over into whatever came next. It was true that most of the city’s occupants went away after sixty or seventy years, and while this did not prove the theory, it certainly served to nourish it. (7)

But it doesn’t feel like just a theory when it’s the only thing that makes sense about the characters in their ever-shrinking “outer room.” The nature of the city is depicted as a mystery, but its key aspects are spelled out and simplistic. It’s quickly established that a super-mega-ultra plague (my phrase) is devouring the earth; dead folks are flowing into the city at a rapid clip. At the same time, folks are flowing out of the city as the living and their memories die. The recently deceased provide little information to the city-folk beyond the fact that everyone is dying from a plague termed “the Blinks.” Well, not everyone is dead yet…

Every other chapter flashes to Laura Byrd as she fights for survival in Antarctica, alone, possibly the last living person on Earth. Laura was sent by Coca Cola “to explore methods of converting polar ice for use in the manufacture of soft drinks,” and is the last member of her small expedition. (30) When the communication system went down, her two companions set off for help from another research station. For the entirety of Laura’s story, she never speaks to another living person. I think Brockmeier’s intention was to capture an ordinary woman in an extraordinary predicament, but it’s a shallow and predictable study. Laura faces power supply woes, bad weather, cracking ice, and frostbite. If you’re familiar with any type of survival series/movie/book, then you’re familiar with Laura’s struggle. It’s standard stuff and handled in a predictable way. The writing is pretty and lyrical, but ultimately fails to create a hard-edged picture of her perils. Oh, and there’s crap like this:

It would be more than a month before she discovered exactly what she had left behind on the slope and the full consequences of her accident became clear to her. (59)

Lazy. Lazy. Lazy. The ominous tone around her sledge mishap already implied there was more damage than Laura realized. This feeling of dread was effective until the rubbish little-did-she-know technique was applied.

In the final chapters, Laura’s experiences are shown to affect the city of the dead and this is when the book gets interesting. Why there isn’t more of this (and sooner), I’ll never know. The Brief History of the Dead is proof that it takes more than a cool concept and swanky cover to sell a story.

Overall: 2.8

Translation: I recommend this for the interesting turns of phrase and clever visuals. It starts strong, but runs downhill quickly.